Category Archives: Week 5

The “Go-Ahead Character” of Samuel Morse.

By Yang Hai, Lei Qin, and Josh Weiner

Samuel Morse and Mechanical Imitation

Samuel Morse was born in 1791, when America had just won its freedom from Britain and was finding its footing as a newly independent nation. As he aged, he witnessed America make further progress in that regard, establishing its government and expanding its technology. 

His work as a painter and inventor mirrored his home nation’s concurrent development. He embraced the technology of the day throughout his whole career, and found a way to have it influence his artwork.

According to Morse and Mechanical Reproduction, there was an “unswerving path” running through all of his career endeavors. Morse’s various interests were “all linked by [his] commitment to his own principle of mechanical imitation.” This is the most basic connection between all of his identities, practices, and ideas: they were all driven by his desire to constantly reinvent work that had preceded him, so as to keep it up to date with contemporary technology and education. What author Sarah Kate Gillespie describes as his “go-ahead character” was a common denominator throughout his body of work.

Gillespie remarks that Morse was busy with “mechanical imitation” from his early career onwards, as seen with his proto-photographic projects and his “attempts to create a marble-carving machine for the replication of sculpture.” He worked in this same spirit as he tested new uses for the daguerreotype camera– taking what the French had already done and seeing whether he could take it further back in America.

All of Morse’s projects and ideas were driven by his deep love of technology. He recognized “the potential impact of technology on culture” and also had a strong “desire to be associated with this particular American brand of modernity.” This mentality is what drew him to the daguerreotype camera, introduced in France in the 1930’s. He was a big fan of the  “marriage of the visual and technological” which this device represented– “art is to be greatly enriched by its discovery,” he said, and it would also be granted a new sense of “perspective and proportion.”

Given that painting, by its very nature, involves replicating subject matters, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Morse was so drawn to this medium. This idea of “mechanical imitation” is seen in his famous paintings, The House of Representatives and Gallery of the Louvre. He used the “camera obscura” technique in these works “to copy exactly what was in front of him.”

Along with repurposing technology for artistic purposes, Gallery of the Louvre fits in with the pattern in Morse’s career of elaborating upon what had come upon him. As Images as Evidence explains, gallery painting had existed in Europe for several centuries before Morse came along. But by imitating this “collection of old masters” with the help of the daguerreotype, Morse not only brought a new technology to this style of art, but also a new purpose and technology.

As author Catherine Roach remarks, Morse was applauded for making a gallery painting which could be used as a means of “bourgeois education,” which had not traditionally been the objective of artists who made gallery paintings. Plus, Morse was giving many Americans their first glimpse of some of the great artwork housed in the Salon Carré of the Musée du Louvre.

Even though, as Professor Irvine notes in his essay, Morse took some liberties in that all of these paintings were never together in the same room at once, “the first American meta-painting in the gallery painting genre tradition” still carried a noble objective. Morse hoped that showing all of this great artwork together at once would serve as inspiration to audiences in America, and create a sense of what was possible. Perhaps he would even “inspire a new American school of thought” with the country’s first official gallery painting.

Professor Irvine is right to note that “We find in Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre the same motivations for encoding and transmitting ideas and for communicating across distances that informed his concepts and designs for the telegraph.” This observation gets at the heart of the common motivation fueling all of Morse’s projects. His love of painting and love of new technology were demonstrably inspired by a desire to see his fellow citizens more cultured and connected. Along with “mechanical imitation,” these represent the connections which Morse’s lifelong projects and ambitions all seemed to share. 


Communicating Ideas: The Art of Samuel Morse

Aside from creating his greatest artistic work—Gallery of the Louvre—Morse also achieved his greatest invention during this period: the single-wire telegraph, which revolutionized communications and ushered in the information age.

Morse’s telegraph was more efficient than other prototypes because it used a single wire. It was also much more reliable because it produced a record of the transmission by using electromagnets to print on paper. Using a different telegraph, the reader would have to watch a needle and transcribe the message they saw, which was far from reliable. But why did Morse suspend his now successful artistic career to focus on developing the telegraph?

At that time, communication was slow. Morse himself experienced communication problems. In 1811, when he arrived in London as an art student, tensions were high between England and the United States. English ships were attacking American ships believed to be carrying goods to England’s enemy, France. Eventually, England sought reconciliation but, tragically, while that message was on its month-long journey over the Atlantic Ocean, the United States declared war in 1812. This war lasted for two years amid similar confusion.

After the peace treaty had been signed, American and English forces engaged in another major battle, not knowing that the war was over. Slow communication also affected Morse in a more personal way. In 1825, Morse was 500 kilometers away in Washington D.C. when his young wife died suddenly in New Haven, Connecticut. He could not even attend her funeral because it took a week for the news to reach him by mail. However, an electrical impulse travels in an instant. Morse realized that the international and personal problems he had experienced could be eliminated if electricity could be put to use in communication.

Samuel Morse and The House of Representatives

In the painting The House of Representatives, Morse paid attention to the architecture; the painting depicted the important figures of American democracy at that time, symbolizing nationalism. The depiction of perspective lines is impressive, as well as the use of lighting.
The depiction of the telegraph in the painting of Gallery of the Louvre, and the appearance of Morse’s daughter Susan in the painting with a drawing board represent a kind of personification allegory of the art drawing (Irvine, 6). While Morse’s portrait of his daughter “Susan Walking Muse” marks the end of his painting career and step into the Daguerreotype photographs.  

I was impressed by the Daguerreotype photographs in the National Portrait Gallery that we visited. They are tiny and kept inside an album.  The Morse self-portrait photograph in 1845 is very different from his self-portrait painting in 1812. Not only they are depicted in diverse period of time, where Morse in his early young ages and later time. The differences in painting and photograph is shown and reflect different style and different meaning as well.

It was noticeable how Morse’s interest in investigating the new technology is reflected in his painting. The telegraph appeared in several painting as not only an object, an invention, but also a sign of technological invasion in the periods of time. The painting Men of Progress in 1862 marked the center and the focus point of Morse’s telegraph in the painting, where everyone else is sitting and standing around it.   

What more, his use of technological devices when painting House of Representatives assisted him imitating exactly as previous work. Morse use camera obscura to help himself sketch the painting. His willingness to adopt technology into his painting work showed his strong awareness of technology usage in influencing the nation as well as his commitment toward mechanical imitation (103).

I think Morse’s strong interest in technology under the big environment of invention and technology arisen in the early and late nineteenth century gave him opportunity and reason to devote his career into telegraph invention.



  • Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011.
  • Gillespie, Sarah Kate. “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 100–109. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.
  • Irvine, Martin. “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”
  • Roach, Catherine. “Images as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 46–59. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.





Morse’s Painting, the Daguerreotype and the Telegraph as Interfaces

Morse’s tendency to look to the future is shown in his Gallery of the Louvre as he “re-mediated” the cultural knowledge to the American Republic (Irvine, p. 3). Although gallery paintings do not represent exactly what would have been on display,  Morse carefully selected works he deemed important, thus becoming a curator in his own right. His interpretation of the Salon Carré  represents  a “rich source of information about past attitudes about art”  (Roach, 2015, p.47). Serving as an interface of the Louvre to, the American public, the assembled collections in one painting show how Morse was participating in a larger trend among his network of influence (Roach, 2014, p.51).  Morse and many other artists of the time, such as, Hubert Roberts and John Scarlett, began changing the function of gallery painting as a social commentary to become a means for social mobility (Roach, 2014, p.51). Gallery of the Louvre shows Morse among other Americans in the paintings which is interesting for two reasons. First, it deepens the “meta” aspect of his message by showing how the Louvre or any museum can function as an educational institution. Second, it serves as historical evidence that could have been the impetus for his decision to help form a school of design in New York. Using art from other countries as inspiration for his own piece could also inspire, educate and provide a basis of knowledge for the anyone able to see Gallery of the Louvre to go forth and create their own great works of art.

As Gillespie states, “Most of Morse’s technological experimentation prior to his work with the telegraph was directly related to the mechanical replication of an existing subject.” (Gillespie, p. 101). Such became the common thread that tied his paintings together, namely the “Gallery of the Louvre” and the “House of Representatives”. Morse used technology as a means for exact, or “mechanical” reproduction/ imitation of nature. Through the camera obscura and the daguerreotype, Morse was able to create exact replicas that his mind was “highest class of painting- historical epics” (p. 102). The combination of art and science/ technology is nothing new in the art-world. Michelangelo and Leonardo are exemplars of embodying the concepts of science into their paintings. Morse probably had that same vision while creating his masterpieces, understanding that using technologies married the visual with the scientific, experimenting with new technologies to achieve a mechanical replication.

Aligning with Morse’s daguerreotype, his invention of the telegraph also demonstrates his endorsement of the technology. And this technology, just like his painting which transmits the western artistic masterpieces to the American public, also works as an interface that transcends time and space. Morse’s telegraph transforms messages into codes, and then sends the codes to a different, and more often, a remote place, where the codes are to be transformed back to meaningful messages. Telegraph allows for the instantaneity of information transmission, showing how technology not only intervenes but also changes the nature of human communication. If Morse’s painting could be read as a combination of “mechanical imitation” and “intellectual imitation,” his use of daguerreotype as a more direct transmission of message and meaning, and his telegraph, as Gillespie proposes, exemplifies his obsession with “mimetic reproductive technologies” (Gillespie, p. 101). Interfacing between different media through the system of coding and decoding, telegraph goes one step further in the accurate transmission of meanings. As Prof. Irving rightfully summarizes, “Morse’s whole career was about using symbolic media for encoding the transmission of meaning — and transmitting representations through time and across distances” (Irvine, p. 1).

Gillespie, Sarah Kate. “Morse and ‘Mechanical Reproduction.’” From Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. Peter John Brownlee eds. New Haven, Yale UP and Terra Foundation, 2014, 101-108.

Irvine, Martin. “Art and Artefacts as Interfaces: Meta-Representation and Meta-Media from Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project.”

Roach, Catherine. “Image as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.”  From Samuel F.B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention. Peter John Brownlee eds. New Haven, Yale UP and Terra Foundation, 2014, 47-59.

Catherine,  Adriana, and Yinghan

Morse, Metapainting, and the Museum Interface

By Adey Zegeye, Dina El-Saharty, and Jordan Moeny

Morse’s life and work is a useful case study because of his contributions to art, education, and science. Arts and sciences are connected and need to use each other in order to progress. This is displayed not just in how Morse’s relationships with other scientists and artists influenced his inventions, but also in his work. Morse chose to highlight the importance of museums and art as a system of meaning, to bring ideas to America, and to educate others on how to understand the art within a historical context, as demonstrated most in his piece Gallery of the Louvre.  Morse’s identity, practices and ideas connect because they are all uses of perspective, representation, transmission, and systems of meaning. Daguerreotype photography, the electromagnetic telegraph, and metapainting are all examples of systems of ways to encode and transmit meaning and representation through time and across distances (Irvine, 1).

Morse was a part of a group of thinkers who reflected on their place in history in their works. Irvine writes, “The reflexive or meta turn in a representational medium is possible by converting the idea or question of representation itself into the subject matter of the representation. The gallery metapaintings use the system of representation in a painting genre to reflect back on the function of representation in collections of paintings themselves” (6, emphasis added). Using the Louvre as his foundation and reference point, Morse reflected the subject of art itself in his painting. While many early gallery paintings were used as a form of self-promotion by wealthy patrons—a means of showing off the grandeur of their collections—Morse was one of a group of artists who turned the genre into something more egalitarian. He specifically aimed to inspire others to learn, using Gallery of The Louvre to bring arts education to the US and as a foundation for what he hoped would be the future of education in the arts. Roach writes that “Morse’s contribution to the genre was not the concept of rehanging a gallery to convey a message, but rather the specific message he crafted for the American audience” (47).

Morse’s earlier painting, The House of Representatives,shows a similarly idealistic approach to its subject matter. Using the camera obscura to trace his painting, Morse accurately replicated the architecture of the space, but also presented an idealized version of the House of Representatives. Here, the dualities of “mechanical imitation” and “intellectual imitation” are largely at play. Gillespie quotes Morse as saying, “ A picture then is not merely a copy of any work of Nature, it is constructed on the principles of nature. While its parts are copies of natural objects, the whole work is an artificial arrangement of them.” (102) In other words, the painting imitates reality using “mechanical imitation” in order to be relatable and true, but also serves as a space for artists to construct their own reality (i.e. “artificial arrangement”), ultimately serving as an interface of transmitting new ideas of progress. The National Gallery overview of the painting notes that the House at the time was “often raucous and factional—debating major legislation such as the Slave Trade Act of 1820 and the Missouri Compromise of 1821.” The Corcoroan Gallery catalogue has a similar commentary: “The House of Representatives is not a picture of Congress as it was but Congress the way Morse wanted it to be. His compulsion to depict it as harmonious, courteous, and tranquil, to stress institutional civility, spatial clarity, and architectural magnitude, was an effort to vanquish the present and recuperate the past” (Cash 71). By depicting a Native American leader, alongside Supreme Court justices, legislators and the President of the United States, in a peaceful moment, his representation exudes a sense of national harmony, and epitomizes his hope for a better America. While the depiction of the House of Representatives has been mechanically imitated, its intellectual imitation stemmed from Morse’s optimistic vision for America at the time. As with Gallery of the Louvre, Morse depicted a fictional version of the world in the hope that it would inspire the public to make it a reality.

Morse recognized that a museum—and Art more broadly—is not just a collection of aesthetically pleasing images, but a place where we learn how to shape ideas and how to organize our society and culture. The museum is one place where we build our “cultural encyclopedia,” while also being a place that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to comprehend without having access to that cultural encyclopedia in the first place. As a viewer of art, anyone can make their own meanings from something, but they have to be a member of the “subculture” in order to have the background context that helps them connect the dots.

Many of the major paintings and inventions of Morse’s time overlap each other in spaces and social contexts, indicating that they were part of a larger context and cultural conversation. This is also why the museum as an interface is particularly helpful in understanding 1) how artists were influenced, 2) the historical context, 3) how layered art can be in terms of what meanings we derive from them and how they shape our society, ideas, and exchange of culture. Morse’s work—both his metapainting and his version of the House of Representatives—illuminated the importance of this context and network. This connects back to the main themes of our class work. Just like a daguerrotype or a telegraph, the museum is an interface: a transmitter and translator of information. The understanding of the translation comes from knowing who the artist is and what message they were trying to convey at the time.

Cash, Sarah, ed. Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art; Hudson Hills Press, 2011.

Gillespie, Sarah Kate. “Morse and ‘Mechanical Imitation.’” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 100–109. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.

Irvine, Martin. “From Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project: Metamedia, and Art Interfaces.”

Roach, Catherine. “Images as Evidence? Morse and the Genre of Gallery Painting.” In Samuel F. B. Morse’s “Gallery of the Louvre” and the Art of Invention, edited by Peter John Brownlee, 46–59. New Haven: Yale University Press and Terra Foundation, 2014.